A session of the EuroPCom conference yesterday gathered communication or campaign directors from four parties: EPP, PES, ALDE, Greens, plus me as moderator. Despite euro-scepticism in the countries and frankly some cynicism in Brussels, I left the Delors building rather encouraged: yes, this campaign can make a difference.
The main change is not in the media used, contrary to popular belief. Online media has been around for three mandates, Facebook was the talk… last time and Twitter is a new way of activating existing public spheres, not in itself breaking borders.
No, two things could increase momentum and turn out:
- the realisation that it is a crisis for Europe, triggering a wide debate on more Europe or less, and what Europe
- and chiefly: a real contest for top jobs. Which means: leadership we need for Europe.
A. ‘Personalised’ campaigns, focusing on candidates for the Commission presidency
Of course, I hear the voices lamenting previous attempts. For sure, party manifestos will provide at best some guidance for national programmes. Certainly, the nominations are late, therefore also the presidential debates will start late. This leaves only three months of real campaigning. With candidates who are not universally known *, and no European public space yet, unlike the US primaries and elections. And yes the final weeks of campaigns, that matters most, will be national.
Still, it’s the first time in EU history that parties will show colours AND faces. And the presidential debates should get real attention: the combination of broadcast + press commentators + social media could make a difference, if properly relayed at national level. Which is likely given the increased press exposure of EU policies, be it very critical.
Not all the parties will have candidates to head the Commission, either because they are country-specific or due to an anti-system stance. These will complain about presidential debates. So be it, let’s discuss openly who can lead and who doesn’t even wish to **.
Laurent Thieule of the Committee Of Regions asked a good question, echoing Van Rompuy’s doubts: what happens if the Council ‘takes into account’ the party make-up of the EP, but does not choose the person put to voters? My own answer: this would be a case for the EP to show muscle, and especially whichever is the leading group. And of course some compromise would be found not ‘à la US shutdown’. This makes it important to ‘also’ involve government leaders in the nomination process, as notably the EPP plans to do…
B. Mainstream parties agree on principles, while diverging on nomination processes
On the EuroPCom podium, I could feel a high degree on convergence:. Having candidates for the top job is not in question any more. There are practical talks between campaign managers about programme comparators, milestones in the top candidate confrontations etc. Subject to later scoops and surprises, especially at national level, campaign tools do not sound very different.
Where they differ are the nominations processes meant to give candidates legitimacy. Innovation and likelihood of leading the EU Executive are probably in reverse order:
1. The most innovative are the Greens. They will have two co-leaders, including a woman (possibly the only one if rumors among other parties turn out to be true). They will have real primaries, open to non member voters, moreover online. Let’s recall that primaries gave the French Parti Socialiste credentials to nearly beat Sarkozy in 2007, and take over from him in 2012. Applications until 20 October, results on 29 January, and formal congress support on 21-23 February. More: @JHillje
2. ALDE, the liberals and democrats. They released their process just in time for our session! It will hold its main event in eurosceptic London, which may bring it maximum coverage. Applications from that ‘Manifesto Congress’ on 30 November, until 20 December. Party leaders meet the day before the deadline, so expect news around there… Official Electoral Congress on 1 February, in Brussels. More: @DdeSchaetzen
3. The Party of European Socialists talked in the past about primaries, but now calls them ‘internal primaries’. This reflects the usual party nomination process, with a congress gathering delegates. Socialists do believe in open debates, and have natural allies with trade unions, which triggered one of only two successful Citizen Initiative so far. However, the nominee is widely rumored to be Martin Schulz, current Parliament President, so that the suspense is gone. (Probably little hope of contest despite Delors’ statement on Lamy: SPD and PS would discuss in advance, I think, avoiding ‘France versus Germany’). You may still apply, until 31 October… for primaries in January and congress results in February. More: @kingboru
4. Most conservative is the European People’s Party. It has the legitimacy of governing more countries than others, especially Germany, and being the largest group in the European Parliament. The nomination process is traditional, relying on national leaders in European organs, and crowning at a Dublin congress on 6-7 March. This conveys credibility rather than innovation. However, the choice is still widely open, and will focus on politicians with executive experience. More: @AnttiTimonen (group) or @eppspokesman (party)
C. Good news: nominations late but nearly grouped, talk about some 5 presidential debates
Between Greens end of January and EPP beginning of March: all nomination results will hit the news within six weeks. Moving all parties from pre-campaigns now to active European campaigns then, and after that: national campaigns like usual.
This will allow scheduling several public debates between top candidates. In the hope of replicating a little bit of the momentum in national presidential campaigns, like in France, or indeed in the US.
The Committee of Regions is daring to organise the first one, in Athens, the day after EPP designates its candidate in Dublin. Another one would be TV-oriented, which is essential. There are one or two other projects in the making, notably leveraging social media. EurActiv itself may take some initiatives, given the high number of journalists reading its 15-country media network.
So, in a nutshell:
yes this campaign will be fun to follow,
and could engage Europe’s citizens.
Relevant EurActiv article: EU parties line up for Brussels top job nomination
* My own grain of critical salt: instead of single candidates, I’d recommend ‘tickets à 4′ to the 4 top jobs, each led by a candidate to the Commission. This would facilitate gender, North/South, East/West and age balance. It would also increase campaign availability, photo opportunities, debates on specialized topics, and language outreach. And chiefly: enhance chances for each party to get in negotiations ‘something for someone’. More on that in case of interest…
** Note: this post makes personal points, not a ‘moderator’s summary’ of the session. I regret that there were no women on the podium. Also, this EP campaign will feature many ‘non mainstream’ parties, be they euro-sceptic, populist or not. Even if they do not provide candidates for the top jobs, they should of course be heard and seen just like the others.